Skip to main content

The Fall Guy


The Fall Guy

Those of us of a certain age will be forgiven if the title THE FALL GUY brings to mind the television series of the same name, which was Lee Majors’ vehicle in the early 1980s. This new novel by veteran author and poet James Lasdun is something entirely different, a multi-dimensional slow cooker that relies on a series of delayed revelations to gradually but inexorably tug the reader into it.

There are four principals in THE FALL GUY, three of whom we meet almost immediately and a pivotal fourth one who at first hovers safely on the periphery only to be part of an explosive event later in the story. Charlie and Matthew are first cousins who are also friends but have a vague history between them that becomes clearer during the course of the narrative. Charlie is a successful banker who is somewhat between situations during the novel and thus attempts to reinvigorate and perhaps reinvent himself. Matthew is adrift, an excellent chef but a poor businessman who, in his 40s, isn’t quite sure what he wants to do with himself. Chloe is married to Charlie; Matthew is attracted to her in a way that isn’t entirely defined, probably because his feelings defy easy classification.

"I was reminded of the works of John Barth in some places and John Cheever in others, with a dash of Jason Starr thrown in here and there. Lasdun makes it all work, and then some."

When we first meet Charlie and Matthew, they are driving together from New York City to Charlie and Chloe’s summer home in the fictional village of Aurelia located in rural New York. The subtle superior/inferior relationship between the cousins is set up rather quickly as we learn that Matthew is planning to stay with Charlie and Chloe in their guest house for the summer in exchange for running errands and several weeks’ worth of gourmet meals. The arrangement seems fine at first, but eventually we learn that it’s built on unsteady pins as various insecurities and hidden histories among the three begin to surface.

Matthew, in particular, is chafing for reasons that become clear later in the book, and when he makes a discovery during the course of his comings and goings, it threatens to --- and ultimately does --- turn things upside down, with Matthew being the primary catalyst. The major high point for me is his preoccupation with PENSEES by Blaise Pascal. It was Pascal who famously noted that “humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” It is an observation that Matthew fails to heed.

As for the fourth principal, I am being deliberately evasive about them, other than to say that they’re the bump in the road that takes out the oil pan, if you will. The real strength of the book is the manner in which Lasdun drops breadcrumbs throughout the story that ultimately leads to a far different place than one might initially expect from all of the players. It’s a bit of a new play on the “unreliable narrator” device, one that the reader doesn’t see coming. At least not at first.

THE FALL GUY is not a long book, but Lasdun does not skimp on character development or story depth. He instead uses every word to get into the mortar that holds the tale’s substance together. As with the best books, you don’t really notice it until it’s there. At the same time, the novel defies easy characterization. It’s an uneasy social study with romantic elements and then edges into thriller territory before treading into the realm of a caper novel. Lasdun does all of this without sacrificing the book’s strong literary element. I was reminded of the works of John Barth in some places and John Cheever in others, with a dash of Jason Starr thrown in here and there. Lasdun makes it all work, and then some.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 4, 2016

The Fall Guy
by James Lasdun